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  • Writer's picturePaul Press

Part 3: Training and Early War Years

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

In his civilian life, Albert was an Assistant Bakery Manager in the Holtom family bakery. Therefore it is plausible that when he enlisted into the Army, he did so with the Army Catering Corps and initially trained as a Cook.

However, when he attached to the 2nd Battalion in September 1941, it seems highly unlikely that he did so as an Army Catering Corps Cook, not least because the Army Catering Corps did not routinely assign its men to other units until May 1943. Additionally, it is clear that Albert qualified as a Parachutist and, as Peatling states in his book, “Without Tradition: 2 Para 1941-1945” (2004), Cooks “were non jumpers”. This statement is supported by Major John Frederic Cramphorn’s account of “D-Day” when a call came over the radio to see if there were “any cooks in the Company”, because the “A.C.C. [Army Catering Corps] cooks came over by sea and did not arrive until ‘D’ plus

one”. Cramphorn’s comment implies that, while there may have been men within each Company who were qualified to cook, the full-time Cooks from the Army Catering Corps did not travel by air.

Hence, Albert’s decision to volunteer for parachuting duties was most probably to become a Parachutist, not a Cook within a Parachute Battalion. It is also likely that, with a medical classification of A1 on enlistment, he would have been encouraged to adopt an active operational role.

Prior to departing for the North Africa campaign in late 1942, Albert was involved in extensive training exercises with the 2nd Battalion, right across the UK; from New Cumnock in Scotland, to Exmoor in Somerset, as well as areas in and around Hardwick and Bulford Camps. In particular, the short scheme in New Cumnock, which was part of exercise “Dryshod”, would not have required the services of a Cook, with men having been provided with rations prior to setting off for Scotland.

Albert's appearance in the ‘HQ’ Company photograph, taken in September 1942, where he appears to be wearing the cap badge of the Army Catering Corps, is clear evidence that he was in ‘HQ’ Company at that time. This would make sense if Albert was a Cook since, if there were Cooks within the 2nd Battalion, they would most likely have been in ‘HQ’ Company. Conversely, however, ‘HQ’ Company was not exclusive to Cooks, and therefore his inclusion in this photograph would not preclude him from having an operational parachuting role. The function of ‘HQ’ Company was to provide core services to other units, so a man from this Company could be in the Intelligence Section, or a Signaller in the Signal Platoon, or a member of a Mortar, Anti-Tank, or Machine Gun Platoon, or even a Batman to an Officer, like Private Ralf Baverstock, who is depicted in the same photograph. Since men were only “attached” to the Parachute Regiment and, more importantly, Army Air Corps cap badges were not available at that time, the sight of a man wearing his parent unit’s badge was normal, and did not necessarily indicate his role in the 2nd Battalion.

Albert is listed as having taken part in the Elementary Parachute Training Course No. 15, which ran in the middle of June 1942. Based on Peatling’s comments mentioned previously, this, in itself, would suggest that he was a Parachutist, not a Cook. However, the full story of Albert’s parachute training may not be as straightforward as that. The first evidence for this is his Service and Pay Book, which states that he was already a Qualified Parachutist by 5th May 1942.

It is also noted in the 2nd Battalion War Diaries that “Most of HQ ‘Coy’ [Company] made a descent from the balloon at HARDWICK park” on 18th February 1942. If Albert was not a Cook, and had been with the 2nd Battalion since its formation, then it is likely that he was one of the men who jumped from the balloon on that day, and so it is possible that he was actually a Qualified Parachutist even before the entry dated 5th May 1942 shown in his Service and Pay Book would suggest. This is supported by the fact that this entry is actually written before the one noting his promotion to Acting Corporal on 24th December 1941.

Additionally, he was in possession of an early pattern enamelled GQ badge which is indicative of him being amongst the first parachutists to be trained, which in turn ties in with his personal testimony. If this is to be believed, then he was not only qualified, but his recollection of performing night jumps as part of his training suggests that he had actually completed his Advanced Qualification – well before he took part in the Elementary Parachute Course No. 15.

To complicate matters further, Parachute Course No. 15 may not have been everything it purported to be. Cross referencing the dates of the course with the 2nd Battalion War Diaries, and the AFEE report AVIA 21/68 (AFEE/P30), it appears that this course coincided with men of the 2nd Battalion providing willing bodies for experimental jumps from Wellington aircraft, as witnessed by the 2nd Battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gofton-Salmond, and V Group Commander, Lieutenant General Allfrey DSO. This kind of collaboration was not unusual, and would have been the second set of Wellington bomber trials that the AFEE carried out with assistance from the 2nd Battalion; the first of which involved Lieutenant (later Captain) John “Tim” Timothy, and a Platoon from ‘A’ Company, less than two months earlier. Prior to that, the 2nd Battalion was, in fact, the experimental Battalion for the whole of February 1942.

If Albert was already an Advanced Parachutist by the time of Parachute Training Course No. 15, then it is likely that his attendance on it was a cover for him to participate in the experimental trials from Wellington aircraft, rather than to complete his Elementary Parachuting Qualification.

This theory is also supported by the presence of Lieutenant (later Major) Ronald “Ronnie” Stark on the same training course. Like Albert, Stark had been attached to the 2nd Battalion since its formation. Although there are some significant gaps in the first few months of entries in the 2nd Battalion War Diaries, it is clear that men who were in ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies had all completed their elementary parachute qualifications by the end of November 1941. With ‘A’ and ‘R’ Companies completing their advanced training by January 1942, this implies that they also had previously completed their initial training before the end of 1941. In January and February, ‘A’ Company completed their “monthly” jumps from the static balloon at Hardwick Camp, so when ‘HQ’ Company completed their balloon jump in February, it is fair to assume that this was also a monthly jump for men of that Company who had already qualified as parachutists. It is known that Stark took command of ‘HQ’ Company on 2nd January 1942 but, nonetheless, whether he was in 'A', 'B', 'C', 'R', or 'HQ' Company during his first few months with the 2nd Battalion it is likely that he was already a Qualified Parachutist by February 1942 – long before he, and Albert, took part in Parachute Training Course No. 15. Even Gofton-Salmond completed both his Elementary and Advanced Parachute training during March 1942.

Irrespective of when Albert qualified, based on the content in a letter that Albert sent home without censorship, in which he talks about getting “prepared to go abroad” and that he will be “travelling by air”, it is clear that he was in a position to take part in airborne raids before he travelled to North Africa in November 1942. Further evidence that he was an operational Parachutist, not just a Cook.

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